Saturday, March 30, 2013

Harlem Shake, makankosappo and the death of the dream

Well, it was fun while it lasted. That brief, glorious window when web culture was all about happy, random accidents and people having fun for the hell of it is officially over; although people will need to be conned into thinking they’re still free agents or the whole edifice will fall over, probably taking what remains of consumer capitalism with it. This article identifying the people who really benefited from the Harlem Shake phenomenon is a sobering read, not because I ever gave much of a damn about the meme itself but because of the whole end-of-innocence vibe it represents; the Altamont of Web 2.0, maybe. Of course, people will still do daft, innovative things and bung them up on YouTube; but by the time most of us see them, the pimps will have got to work. “The world is divided into two categories,” said the Dadaist Francis Picabia, “failures and unknowns.” Yup.

So there’s just time to say that I rather like this most recent daft meme, makankosappo, which basically involves Japanese schoolgirls pretending to have superhuman powers. But since its arrival mysteriously coincides with the imminent release of a new movie, maybe I’m already going off it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

All the people, so many people

I suppose I was just a little bit too old for Britpop when it happened. I mean, I was still buying music and I was still reading music magazines; hell, I was even writing for music magazines (having graduated from writing letters to music magazines, which is rather more fun). At the same time, though, I was too old to take sides in the hyped-up, coked-up Blur vs Oasis nonsense. If you’d put a gun – probably the sort of gun that fires a Union Jack flag with BANG! written on it – to my head, I would probably have picked Blur, because they wrote more than one song. But Pulp were better than either of them and in any case once you’re in a culture where Chris Evans is mediating the musical taste of the nation’s youth you may as well cut your ears off.

But some people still seem to get excited by the whole farrago, maybe because they still want us to remember when they were young and pert and relevant. First Robbie Williams takes a verbal swing at Brett Anderson, reminding us IN BLOCK CAPS that some Britpop bands were, y’know, a bit not good, right and at the same time reminding us that Britpop jumped the desert-booted shark when Robbie Williams started hanging out with Oasis. (Although, were Chapterhouse really Britpop? Curve? Kingmaker? Hey, I guess if you remember the mid-90s you weren’t really there, eh, Rob?) Then Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher snuggle up at a charity gig as if all that antipathy might have been y’know, just a stunt and, hey, Anna Friel and Damien Hirst have come along for the ride as if they were trying to recreate a Camden photoshoot for a Loaded cover story (I’m guessing Keith Allen and Sadie Frost and Ewan McGregor were otherwise engaged) and suddenly I’m quite glad that I was just a bit too old for Britpop. Because if I’d been just the right age for Britpop, if it had really, really mattered to me, if I still had any youthful illusions left, I’d probably be sitting on the floor right now playing my blue vinyl Bluetones singles one by one and then melting them with my hot tears of embarrassment.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Not waving but typing

I knew this was going to happen. No sooner do I announce that I’m taking a blogging sabbatical when I suddenly get my mojo back; although to be honest I hesitated in writing this post because the subject matter is so sad. It’s about 14-year-old Kayleigh Lawrie, who died when a car driven by a drunk friend of her father went off the road in Lincolnshire, shortly after she’d updated her Facebook status: “I think I’m going to die. xx. luv you all”. It’s just such a 21st-century story, the collision of technologies, digital banality versus analogue brutality, Mark Zuckerberg meets JG Ballard head-on. Five decades ago or so people wanted to live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Now all we have is the unutterable pathos of those two lower-case kisses.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I’ve written two posts in the last couple of days, one about Django Unchained, the other about the press regulation malarkey, and both were pretty uninspired, to be honest, so I won’t inflict them on you. Think I’ll take a wee rest from this blog lark; I’ll come back when the seagull of inspiration next craps in my beer. Or something. In the meantime, here’s my new fave beat combo.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Duncan Bannatyne and a lesson in practical criticism

I know, I know, I KNOW, I’ve been more than a little slack with the blog updates in recent weeks. I could blame a combination of laptop problems and too much proper work stuff going on but it was more about a weird sensation of extreme tiredness that arose whenever I felt the urge to write a sentence; I did consider pontificating on the Nate Thayer writing-for-free hoo-ha (which subsequently morphed into the Nate Thayer plagiarism hoo-ha) or possibly having a bit of a grumble about the fact that “literally” now means “not literally” but I just found myself staring dumbly at a blank space, unable to think up even an opening clause. They don’t have these problems on Tumblr I guess.

One of the pleasant distractions that I might have used as an excuse for my state of not-blogging came a few days ago when I received a very charming email from a journalism student asking me for my views on the state of music hackery. One of the intemperate, it-was-better-in-the-old-days things I ranted was as follows:
The significance of professional rock critics as tastemakers began to decline in the early 2000s for two reasons. First, the arrival of Napster and other file-sharing sites meant that pretty much any piece of music could be summoned on demand, for free. You didn't need to be told by a journalist that the new White Stripes single was a bit pedestrian – you could find out yourself without getting out of bed. The majority of music consumers only really care about what a piece of music sounds like, whether they like it or not (an aesthetic that really began to kick in with the launch of Q magazine in the mid-1980s) and don't feel the need for any further discussion. Once rock journalists' purpose in providing this information became redundant, these consumers had no further use for them.

There is however a significant minority of consumers who do enjoy the discussion and argument surrounding the music; although they're relatively small in number, they're more committed as fans and they proportionately listen to more music than the majority group. These were also the core consumers of the weekly music press but at around the same time the music industry itself came under attack from download culture, online entities such as Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound began competing for the attention of those who were interested in a critical discourse about music (this is the second big change). However, this wasn't simply a matter of online journalists replacing print journalists; the very process of criticism became more democratic, even anarchic, with the significance of the original review taking second place to the conversation that developed around it. One could argue that everyone who contributes to such discussions is a music journalist of a kind. To sum up, the significance of *individual* music journalists has decreased massively since the days of Charles Shaar Murray, Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill, Greil Marcus etc; but music journalism as a *collective* entity (think of it as a hive mind, a Borg of opinion) is still powerful.

I don't see this as a problem in itself, as I've always thought the purpose of criticism is to provoke thought and discussion and argument rather than to declaim some sort of infallible opinion from on high. That said, not all opinions are equally useful to the process and I sometimes feel that discussion is dominated by the loudest voices rather than those who are best informed or have the most acute critical antennae.
And then, prompted by a specific question about whether Spotify, Pandora etc have made music journalism redundant:
This works for people who just want to listen to music and not really think about it (aural wallpaper) but for others who are interested in the broader cultural context that's not enough; they need a hinterland of discussion, analysis, interviews, reviews etc. While we're here, some would argue that there's a subtle difference between music reviews (which tell you what the music's like) and music criticism (which offers perspectives on music you've already listened to). The first may become redundant but not the latter.
And no sooner had I sent off that last missive, I came across an article on PopJustice entitled So what’s the latest with Duncan Bannatyne’s boyband? I initially misread the last bit as “Duncan Bannatyne’s boyfriend” which threw me, but not for the reason you may think. I have only a sketchy awareness of who Duncan Bannatyne may be and for a moment I had him confused with the camp 80s comedian Duncan Norvelle who, despite his purportedly amusing stage persona is in reality a heterosexual father-of-several. So the notion that truth and art had finally become entwined was a little surprising.

Anyway, once I’d got my Duncans sorted, I read the PopJustice article, which essentially asserted that Duncan Bannatyne’s boyband (ReConnected) isn’t very good, but some people said no, actually, they are good and then the PopJustice person put up a YouTube clip and said there, listen to that, that pretty much defines not-very-goodness, doesn’t it? The funny thing is, it was the fans (who one might assume to have a less sure grasp on the broader socio-cultural context in which ReConnected’s music is situated) who argued from the perspective of critics (“Twats... There is nothing wrong them... You need to back off and let them live their dream.”) while it was the soi-disant music journalists who settled into the banal rut of that-thing-that-replaced reviewing: effectively, “Here’s the music, make up your own bloody minds.” The world’s turned upside down, hasn’t it? Or at least wobbled on its axis a wee bit.

And just because you’ve been so patient, here’s a nice picture of Duncan Norvelle (not Bannatyne) discussing the infinite complexities of human sexuality with the new Pope.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The unstructured reality of Sylvia Smith

I don’t know how Sylvia Smith might have reacted had she known she had become the subject of an obituary in the Daily Telegraph. True, she was a published author with three books to her name; but those books were distinguished – if that’s the word – by the flatness of the prose and the banality of the content, most of it being short anecdotes of her apparently entirely humdrum life. It’s the combination of style and content that makes her works remarkable, I guess. There’s nothing wrong about detailing the minutiae of everyday life if you do it in an interesting way (see The Mezzanine,  Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, which teases interest from a superficially mundane lunch hour, rather as artful editing and stage management moulds the stars of structured reality TV into supposedly compelling viewing) or applying a flat style to interesting goings-on (I’m currently reading Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, in which the extraordinary back story of the titular character is thrown into hilarious relief by the artfully artless prose).

There may be a feminist subtext in the acclaim bestowed upon Smith’s work; I’m reminded of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, in which the heroine’s domestic drudgery is portrayed in real time; yeah, you may be bored as a viewer, but think what it must be like to live this way, day in, day out. On the other hand, towards the end of the film, Dielman indulges in a little discreet prostitution, has an unexpected orgasm and kills her client. If that sort of thing had happened to Sylvia Smith, would it have made her books better or worse?

And on similar lines, here’s a piece of radio that left me and plenty of others, including the show’s presenter Paddy O’Connell, more than a little choked up on Sunday. It’s by Emilie Blachere, who wrote a love letter to her partner, war photographer Remi Ochlik, after he died in Syria last year. At times she seems to be reading the text out phonetically, almost as if she’s not quite sure what it means; but by the end, as she recites the lyrics of one of the happiest songs ever written, her halting, heavily accented voice feels perfectly suited to the almost unbearable sadness of the whole story.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Suharit Siamwalla: adventures on the wheels of Thai politics

Every once in a while, it looks as if conventional politics is going to be turned on its head with the arrival of a clown who makes more sense than the straight actors. I suppose Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are the closest we’ve got in Britain since the death of Screaming Lord Sutch, but in other countries they really go for it. Jesse Ventura and Al Franken have had their moments in the States; and right now Italy is apparently waiting on every utterance of Beppe Grillo. The problem is of course that we laugh and applaud when they point out how few clothes the emperor is wearing; but by the time said autocrat’s naked, bloodstained body has been tossed out of the window, we realise that jokes don’t get the bins collected.

It’s the election for the governorship of Bangkok today and conventional wisdom says its a two-horse race between the incumbent Democrat Sukhumbhand Paribatra and Pongsapat Pongcharoen of Pheu Thai, the party of the current Prime Minister. The capital has been solidly behind Sukhumbhand’s party in recent years but the man himself has disappointed many supporters; Pheu Thai is still associated by many with the deaths and conflagrations of the 2010 riots. In past clashes the left-field role has been filled by the shady massage-parlour kingpin Chuwit Kamolvisit but this time around we have the rather more amiable figure of stationery-magnate-cum-DJ Suharit Siamwalla who gets my (non-existent) vote if only for his constructivist-influenced posters and unashamedly hairy back. Which is superficial, but ultimately no more superficial than the tribal grudges that seem to motivate many supporters of the main parties and the politicians themselves (in Thailand, Britain and beyond). And his laugh is less annoying than Nigel Farage’s.

PS: Sukhumbhand won, which rather embarrassed some of the pollsters. My man Suharit came a highly creditable fourth out of 25 candidates. Analysis here.